Rage Against the Dying of the Light
For long-term Woodhead watchers it was just like old days, listening to the great man telling us exactly what it was that made him great. Sir Chris Woodhead was back, on No Triumph No Tragedy (Radio 4, 14.4.14). You wouldn’t wish MND (Motor Neurone Disease) on anyone, and his account of his response to it, under Peter White’s sensitive questioning, was impressive and moving.
Woodhead, the restless action man impatient for results, is now quadraplegic, and dependent on others for support in the most basic routines. He has, he said “had to learn to be more patient and humble in the face of adversity. ” As ever, he remained the clear, caustic critic, eager to dismiss the stupidity of others. He had no patience with disabled people anxious at the prospect of legalising assisted dying; they were making a song and dance about something that was simple.
White took him up on this, having a subtler understanding of the issues involved, and refusing to allow Woodhead to resolve the argument with a contemptuous caricature. Sadly, he was nothing like so careful when the conversation moved on from Woodhead’s current situation to his previous career.
Woodhead was introduced as a man famous for telling it like it really is. He had, White said, “never ducked an issue in his life.” I’m one of many who would disagree with that, and I wouldn’t spend time quarrelling with this programme, were it not for the risk that some lazy journalist might rely on it as a convenient summary of Woodhead’s legacy.
As Chief Inspector, Woodhead was notorious and unpopular. Looking back, he felt that this was an inevitable price of the job.“The Chief Inspector tells the truth about schools...People don’t like being criticised.” Is it really that simple? Other Chief Inspectors had made criticisms without making headlines, and you’d never guess from this interview that a recurrent theme of Woodhead’s career as Chief Inspector was his insistence on making judgements which were not supported by evidence.
His main concern is not with the state of education, or the quality of his team of inspectors, but with his own judgement. He’s right, and the others are wrong. The others, like Michael Gove’s “blob”, are deliberately kept vague, dunces in the shadows whose only role is to illuminate his distinctive insight. Personally, if I found that I was being criticised by Ted Wragg and Tim Brighouse, but supported by Melanie Phillips, I’d start to wonder if I might have got it wrong.
White, whether through ignorance or delicacy, failed to challenge any of this. But his treatment of the notorious “Woodhead Affair” was even more indulgent. He could well have left this out completely. There was sufficient substance and interest in Woodhead’s current circumstances to justify a programme in itself. But if you choose to venture on to such territory with Chris Woodhead, then you need to bring your critical equipment along.
The widely reported accusation that he had had an affair with a student was, Woodhead said, a difficult period, and possibly related to the onset of his MND. The accusation, he said, came from a combination of three sources: “left wing politicians, the teacher unions and my ex-wife for personal reasons combined, and it was a very toxic brew...I weathered it, at some personal cost.”
So, what’s going on here? Are these three parties together making up a set of lies, just to cause trouble? If it’s that simple, why did anyone listen? Why did the National Association of Head Teachers, hardly a mob of howling lefties, ask the government to investigate this charge?
Whether or not Woodhead had an affair in the 1970s doesn’t matter in itself. But he only kept his job in 1994 because he and Amanda Johnston swore an affidavit that the affair began in December 1976, three months after both of them had left the school concerned. Cathy Woodhead must have been clairvoyant rather than vindictive, since she started divorce proceedings three months before Woodhead said the affair began. Nearly a year before that, the writer Angela Carter reproved Woodhead for excessive intimacy with a pupil during an Arvon writing course, and several witnesses testified to evidence of the affair over the intervening months.
That was why the Labour government needed the affidavit, to keep him in post. “We can’t afford to lose Woodhead,” a Blair aide told Libby Purves, “he’s the only hope for education in this country.” That’s why it mattered, and that’s why the Labour government arranged that the allegation wasn’t investigated, and that the failure to investigate it wasn’t reported. Woodhead may wave it away as an inconvenient episode he was able to survive, but those of us with an interest in the truth of government can’t afford to be quite so relaxed.
Woodhead remains a stubborn and impressive figure, coping with an intolerable situation with courage and resolve. But if you want to understand what’s happened to our education system over the past thirty years, he’s not the most reliable witness.